On October 23, the President of the student government sent an email to students and faculty, expressing the concerns of some conservative students on our campus who feel “oppressed,” “marginalized,” and “ridiculed” for their ideology.
This email, which came as a result of the remarks made at the Board of Trustees meeting on October 21, and echoed by President Fox in an email on the October 26, was concerning on several levels, but simply focusing on it may cause us to miss the larger political context; namely, the contention over free speech that took center stage at the University of Berkley and, more broadly, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that proclaimed itself as the voice for the “forgotten.”
It is important to mention that there are areas in this country that suffer from extreme poverty and possibly political neglect. In fact, according to the New York State Department of Health, as of 2015, 18.5 percent of the population lives below poverty. But are these voices that are “forgotten” exclusively white or conservative? By no means. Ta-Nehesi Coates’s piece “The First White President” discusses “the disproportionate effect that the decline in manufacturing jobs has had on African American communities.” Yet when these communities of color have raised these concerns, and the means by which they work to reinforce systems of racial oppression, the national response has often been dismissive, if not hostile.
The concern on a national level, which has unfortunately emerged on our campus, is the assertion that the experiences of conservatives are analogous to the systemic oppression of other groups of people. More concerning, however, is the institutional hyper-acuteness to empathize and respond to certain voices, in a timely fashion, which also involves systemic changes backed (most importantly) financially.
On a national level, this looks like Bernie Sanders calling for an ascension for the Democratic party from identity politics, as if, as Coates puts it, “the politics of race are not somehow about economic disparities or political neglect. Or the response to the opioid epidemic as a public health disaster, rather than a criminal issue that informed the war on drugs, a war that militarized police in certain communities to take on an enemy that was never explicitly stated, but projected on cable news in handcuffs daily.”
The query is not with conservative students on campus; indeed, if they feel uncomfortable on campus expressing their views, then perhaps a conversation should take place where we can identify why this might be the case. The query is with the ascription of certain experiences, “oppression” or “marginalization” for instance, to a group that has the support of the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Executive branch and the Supreme Court. The email from Christopher Di Mezzo states, as a fact “that inclusion has no boundaries, it can have but one requirement: making equal the experiences of all members of our community.” While I hope nobody thinks of inclusion as having boundaries, it is the assertion that all experiences must be made equal that is unfortunate.
The experiences of men and women in regard to safety on college campuses are different, the experience of transitioning or transitioned students on this campus are different, the experience of students of color or international students are different, and they are different because of the larger societal structures of power that reinforce these experiences, differently. It is absurd to liken the realities of sexual assault on college campus, the deportation of dreamers, the increase of hate crimes against people that look like Arabs, the denial to public bathrooms or access to contraception, housing, or police brutality to discomfort while sharing opinions in class. It is a false equivalency that betrays the commitment to academic honesty for our institution and invalidates hence pacifying the voices of other students.
In the spirit of sharing ideas, we welcome and encourage conservatives to contribute in clubs and general conversation, and especially in our courses. But perhaps we should ask what these views are and why there may be discomfort sharing them. If these views include calling Mexicans or by extension people of Latina origin “rapists” or “bad hombres,” or Arabs and Asians “terrorist” under the guise of “radical Islam,” or Black people “thugs” or “lazy” or “prone to violence,” or reducing “grabbing women by the pussy” to “locker room talk,” then you can and should expect a fundamental verbal denunciation and verbal retaliation to those “ideas,” in the spirit of free speech.
Those ideas that have unfortunately come to embody the Trump conservatism are ridiculous and do merit ridicule not only because of their bigoted, racist, Islamophobic, misogynistic and homophobic absurdity, but because, as I am sure we agree, words matter. This is why the First Amendment is important because words have the power to shape our reality and in doing so form antagonists on the basis of characteristics that we cannot choose.
On the contrary, if the brand of conservatism you aspire to share does not reflect these troubling elements that characterized Trump’s campaign and presidency, if the reestablishment of the SLU Republicans means a rebranding or regression to an original or alternative conservatism not grounded in these notions, then I hope and look forward to supporting these ideals.
The email from Christopher Di Mezzo lacks context that I think betrays his goal, and assumes that the students who are not conservatives on this campus are complicit or represented “by our campus’s single voice of American progressivism – elitism.” The email from President Fox also fails to clarify this error, which is also unfortunate. The most concerning issue with this initiative is that it undermines the traditional process through which groups on campus can become clubs. This reflection of a broader institutional bias toward claims raised by certain groups cannot be justified by the argument that historically marginalized groups can now benefit from the spoils of this initiative. This is fundamentally problematic because it reinforces the notion that progress and systemic reform at SLU as well as nationally is contingent on the exclusive petitions of certain people.
By Ndirangu Warungongo.